PARK CITY — Lex Luthor is in town but don't worry, if he tries anything, the new Mr. Spock and Obi Wan Kenobi are here, too.
So is the Elven princess Arwen — oh and Spider-Man for good measure.
All of those actors — Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Ewan McGregor, Liv Tyler and Tobey Maguire — have or are expected to arrive as part of one of the world's most important and respected film festivals. Yes, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival has returned, brought to you, as always, by that lovable rogue, the Sundance Kid (also known as Robert Redford).
It started in 1978 as a way to showcase American films made outside of the Hollywood machine and to boost potential for filmmaking in Utah. In 1981, it moved from Salt Lake City to Park City. This year's event runs through Jan. 30 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and at select screenings in nine cities around the country.
Once upon a time, organizers pitched films to the public as it walked past the single official theater (the Egyptian in Park City). Now it must filter through 10,000 film submissions, deal with worldwide media requests (Lois Lane/Kate Bosworth is in a Sundance film and in Utah) and handle gobs of A-list talent and the entourage that comes with any film — even small ones.
And yes, part of that media circus comes because the beautiful and talented of Hollywood participate with low-budget filmmakers in the name of art and then hang out along the Wasatch Front to promote the final result. It also attracts what festival director John Cooper called "the riff-raff" in the festival's opening day press conference. Not even the Sundance Kid and Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom, also expected) can keep the festival safe from autograph seekers, opportunistic marketers, celebrity obsession and Paris Hilton.
Among the four films that opened the festival Thursday night was "The Guard," which stars Don Cheadle as an FBI agent chasing an international drug smuggling ring.
He said that premiering the film at Sundance "is just a testament to what we were able to pull off and we're just very proud."
For a first-time director/screenwriter, this creates opportunities.
Brendan Gleeson, of "Harry Potter" fame, plays the title character, and he, too, says having the film debut here is big.
"Oh, it's extraordinary to be here, it really is, it's such an important festival for everybody," he said. "Gives independent film a real platform to a real audience, an interested audience, so it's wonderful."
Redford emphasized at the opening news conference earlier in the day that the mission Sundance started with remains intact, despite all the fuss.
"What I learned is, nobody votes for a new idea. So, we started on a shoestring. As I look back, I think I might have felt bad about that at the time. I don't think that is a bad thing. That has become really, our core."
The festival expanded to become a year-round institute that includes many different aspects including workshops to help beginning filmmakers learn, practice and polish the craft from writing to a finished film without the demands of studio economics or commercialism.
Cooper said 2011 could be the biggest Sundance yet. Some 10,000 submissions were whittled down to 118 feature length films, representing a total of 29 countries and 40 first-time filmmakers.
Buzz is surrounding Morgan Spurlock's "The Greatest Film Ever Sold," Kevin Smith's "Red State," and the documentary "Life in a Day." Sponsored by YouTube, the documentary was shot in 24 hours through 80,000 submissions from around the world. Redford said one of the festival's strength lies in the documentary category.
"We could see the pain and experiences of people and experiences of people all over the world. Their stories cross borders, cross ways of thinking," he said.
Despite that internal focus, the list of actors, athletes and musicians being fed to journalists by publicists and marketers goes far beyond the few that can make it into a newspaper story, even in list form. (See our list of celebrities to watch at Sundance 2011)
For the next 10 days, the streets of Hollywood might be deserted, but Cooper claimed the streets of Park City, Salt Lake and Ogden near official venues might be shoulder-to-shoulder. And Cooper said he hopes "the magic happens in our theaters."
Contributing: Carole Mikita and Sara Dallof